Pay the artist!

Practically every week, one well-meaning friend or another will forward me an announcement about another “art contest” and suggest I enter it. I always have to explain to them why (a) these contests are a scam, and (b) the suggestion that I enter is insulting.

Invariably, the “contest” in question is from a company looking for somebody to design a new logo, ad, website, flier, or other promo material for them; the winner gets a small amount of money (usually about 1/2 to 1/10th of what they ought to bill for the job), and the losers get nothing. A quick skimming of the “contest” rules will reveal that the company also retains full ownership of all rights to everything that was submitted. If you enter and don’t win, the company gets to add your work to its library of concepts for future use. They can take your design, hand it to the contest “winner” and have him make a few changes to incorporate, say, the fonts and colors from another “losing” design, make that the winning entry, and you get nothing.

These things are always targeted at students, talented amateurs and inexperienced wannabes who do not understand the realities of the field in which they work. As artists, designers and illustrators, our stock in trade is our ideas, our talent and our ability. Entering a design “contest” serves only to devalue and diminish those things, not only for yourself but for the entire field. That’s the simple reality of these “contests.”

You may wonder why I put “contest” in quotes throughout the previous paragraphs. It’s because the process described above is not a contest. It’s called “working on spec,” and it’s generally frowned upon as an employment practice. There is absolutely no reason why any company couldn’t request art portfolios from applicants, look at the work those artists have already done, choose an artist based on those samples, and then pay that artist to create the logo/ad/whatever. That’s how grown-ups do it. That’s how you show respect for an artist’s time and talent.

Suppose a restaurant wanted to hire a dishwasher; would they ask prospective dishwashers to come in and spend a day on the job for free as a try-out? Would they promise the dishwasher “exposure” or promise to refer him/her for other jobs? Would they tout the benefits of “experience” as a suitable substitute for payment?

If you are a young artist looking for a break, forget about these “contests” and all the scummy sites that promote them. All you’ll get from them is a chance to do work for free, in exchange for which you get referrals to other people who want you to do work for free.

If you are a start-up with little money to spend, having a “contest” to get your logo designed is a bad idea. You’re establishing from the outset that you don’t value your vendors and are willing to cheat them; if you’re willing to cheat your vendors, isn’t it reasonable for people to assume you’ll also cheat your customer? More importantly, you expect people to pay you for the goods and services you provide, right? How would you respond if somebody approached you with an offer to provide your product to them for free, in the hope that they might like it and then choose to pay you for it, but if they don’t like it they get to keep it anyway and use it at some future date? Would you accept this proposal? Then don’t offer it.

The second most common scam, which you will find by the dozen at Craigslist, is the spec job offer. The pitch is always the same: struggling startup needs a logo/ad/package/label/etc designed for their revolutionary product, or art for their comic book or CD cover, and they hope to talk some young and gullible artist into doing it for free. “No pay, but great exposure!” “Good experience and a great piece for your portfolio!” It never occurs to them that any aspiring artist could sit down and design logos or whatever for a mythical company and retain ownership of their work. Students in design school do this all the time; at one point my own portfolio contained fictional ads for Diet 7-Up and the California Kiwifruit Commission. A while back, when I had time on my hands and skills to keep up during a period of underemployment, I gave myself the task of creating logos for businesses mentioned on The Simpsons, entirely as an exercise for my own amusement, exposure and portfolio, and I didn’t have to give the work away at the end.

The point, Craigslist Entrepreneur, is that you need the artist more than the artist needs you. We can work for free without you, and we have DeviantArt, Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and dozens of other portals through which to gain far more and better exposure than you can possibly offer.  If you want a logo, get out the checkbook. It’s part of the cost of doing business, same as any other supplier or vendor you deal with.

Having said that, it’s full disclosure time.

I often do free work for small companies and individuals. But I do it on my terms and according to my own criteria. If you want me to design something for you and can’t afford to pay for it, here are the rules:

1. I have to know and like you. If you’re a friend of a friend, I have to really like and admire our mutual friend, and maybe even feel I owe him/her something. If I don’t know you, I’m not available.


2. I have to really believe in your project or company. I will consider my work an investment in your future. If I like what you’re trying to do and want to see you succeed, I will offer my services. When you’re successful, I will expect you to remember my contribution. At the very least, we’ll work out some kind of trade.


3. You have to be a non-profit, charity or other effort for the public good. I’m a soft touch for anything involving artists’ rights, children, the arts, or education.


4. You can offer me a really good barter for something I want or need, at a fair rate of exchange.

If by some chance you meet one or more of these criteria, I might (mind, I said might) work for you for free to help you get your project off to a good start. And then I’ll hand you an invoice showing the full retail cost of the job I just did. It will also show an adjustment for the appropriate discount, which might be anywhere from 20 to 100%, just so you know that “free” does not mean “worthless.” If anyone asks what you paid, you’ll tell them the pre-discount figure from the invoice.

Now, if I’ve agreed to do your project for free (or steeply discounted), there are a few rules:

1. We’re not going to go back and forth with endless rounds of changes and revisions and tweaks and just one more little thing. I’ll show you a rough, you’ll make your comments, and I’ll give you the finished project. I’ll make corrections, but not changes. What’s the difference? A correction is when I made a mistake; a change is when you did, or you changed your mind, or had an idea, or just don’t know about the font/color/photo. If I gave you what you asked for and you really wanted something else, we’ll start the meter running for the re-do.

2. Your free job will take a back seat to the paying gigs. Don’t expect immediate responses and quick turnaround. If you have a tight deadline, open the checkbook.

Do you get it yet?


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The Artist’s Paradox

That kerfuffle a few months ago about “how to manipulate and cajole employees that you consider to be irrational children” got me thinking about a theory I’ve been refining for a while now. I call it “The Artist’s Paradox” and it goes like this:

According to the non-creative, artists are magical people. They have been blessed with supernatural abilities; they simply wave their hands and art falls from their fingertips. Incredible concepts and beautiful visuals spring full-blown from their foreheads like Athena from the mind of Zeus. They can’t help but create wonderful things every waking hour, and it gives them incredible joy and satisfaction to do so.

Because this ability is a gift from the gods, the artist has a moral responsibility to share it freely with anyone who asks. Asking for money for “just a little sketch” or “just a quick logo design” is selling out, a betrayal of the gift; the artist must never personally profit from his talent lest he prove unworthy of it.

Here’s the parodox: the instant that art leaves the artist’s possession, it somehow transforms into a valuable commodity; it can be sold, published, exploited, recontextualized, licensed and distributed by any and all means from silk-screened t-shirts to the Times Square Jumbotron, and each time it’s used, somebody has to pay the owner for it. He owns it, and he gets to regulate it any way he sees fit. Each of those users, in turn, is allowed to profit from the use of that art, selling products or promoting events.

The only person who is  never to profit from the art is the person who created it. Artists are supposed to work for the love of it, for the dedication to their craft, or from their desire to express themselves.

And now here’s the truth: Artists are not magical people.

Remember way back in second grade, when everybody drew pretty much equally as well? When everybody was about as equally talented at music or writing or any other creative endeavor? We all drew, and we all liked doing it. Over the next few years, a funny thing happened; we all started falling in love with different things. Some of us found that we liked reading. Others loved math. Some found that writing was more fun than reading. Some devoted themselves to sports. Others became fascinated with music or drama or comedy or dance. And some of us liked art. Almost as important, we discovered that other people liked our art and gave us attention. By the time we got to sixth grade, there were only a handful of us in each class; girls drawing unicorns and designing dresses in their notebooks, boys drawing superheroes or funny animals, a few of us even taking painting lessons and learning about fine art. By the time we got through high school, the self-proclaimed artists in our graduating class could all ride to the ceremony together in the same minivan. What happened?

We didn’t discover some inner magic; you stopped trying. While you were doing the things you loved, we did the thing we loved, and we got good at it. That’s all.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Sure, we learned some shortcuts and trained our hands and brains to move in certain patterns, but we still have to work at it. Just as with playing a piano or pitching a baseball, there are skills we needed to have and knowledge we needed to acquire. Creating art is no more magical than creating a spreadsheet. It’s a set of skills and a way of looking at and thinking about problems, and it’s something we learned how to do over a long period of time. Just like you, we found something we were good at, worked hard at it, studied, trained, and got better at it.

And now we expect to get paid for it.

If it helps you to feel better about yourself to believe we do it by magic, that’s fine. As long as you’re willing to pay for the result.

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